THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN

Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: P B Shemran

Stars: Mel Gibson, Sean Penn, Jennifer Ehle, Eddie Marsan, Steve Coogan, Natalie Dormer, Stephen Dillane, Jeremy Irvine, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Fox, Ioan Gruffudd.

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn in The Professor and the Madman (2019)

The compiling of the Oxford English Dictionary is hardly the most exciting or cinematic events around which to build a feature film. But then again who would have thought that a film about the creation of Facebook could have been filled with such drama and tension? Unfortunately though, this film is not quite in the same league as The Social Network.

In 1850 Scottish professor and lexicographer James Murray (played by Mel Gibson) set about the task of compiling the dictionary, an ambitious undertaking that eventually took fifty years to complete. Murray was treated disdainfully by his colleagues at Oxford University. He set about trying to define every word in the English language, trying to trace their origins and check their every day usage. His office walls were plastered with notes, his desk piled with papers as he and his small staff tried to make sense of it all. He eventually decided that the best way to approach the massive task was to reach out to the public and invite contributions.

By far the most contributions – over 10,000 – were received from a Dr William Minor, sent in from the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Intrigued Murray set out to find Minor. He found that Minor (Sean Penn) was actually an inmate. A well-read and Yale educated former US Civil War soldier, Minor had been traumatised by his experiences and suffered from schizophrenia. He had been convicted of murdering a man while in the grip of paranoid delusions and was sentenced to the asylum for the criminally insane. A complicated and unlikely friendship developed between Murray and Minor over their shared love of words and their passion for the project.

As part of his rehabilitation, Minor also met the woman he widowed, the illiterate Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer), and he eventually taught her to read while sending her money from his army pension to support her and her six children. The prickly relationship that developed between them brings a frisson of tension to the material. Although based on the true story this element does seem a little problematic and takes away from the central narrative.

The Professor And The Madman is something of a passion project for Gibson, who acquired the rights to Simon Winchester’s 1998 best-selling non-fiction novel The Surgeon Of Crowthorne twenty years ago and has struggled to bring it to the screen. The script was written by Farhad Safinia, who previously wrote Apocalypto for Gibson, and Todd Komarnicki (Sully, etc), and it deals with lofty themes of class, the politics of academia, crime and punishment, mental illness, scientific ignorance, redemption, forgiveness, and the love of words. It also looks at the horrible abuse inflicted on Minor by the asylum’s chief doctor Richard Brayn (Stephen Dillane) in the name of scientific enquiry. Safinia and Komarnicki take some liberties with the story in an attempt to flesh out the drama. Not all aspects of the story work though and some elements seem a little repetitive.

Safinia made his feature film directorial debut with this film, but this was a troubled project. Gibson and Safinia fell out with the producers over some creative decisions and left the project amid a flurry of lawsuits aimed at preventing the (then uncompleted) film from being released. Gibson has since disowned the film, and Safinia has been credited under the pseudonym of P B Shemran. The backstory of this troubled project is far more interesting than anything on the screen.

Safinia certainly has an eye for period detail and the recreation of Victorian England reeks of authenticity. Tom Conroy’s production design and Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh’s costumes are all excellent. The film has been shot on location in Dublin by Danish cinematographer Kasper Tuxen (Beginners, etc) who employs a muted palette that suits the period and uses natural lighting where possible.

Both Gibson and Penn sport impressive beards here. Gibson’s performance as the academic Murray is a lot more restrained and passive than usual, although he manages to bring a sense of dignity and a dry wit to the role. Penn has the meatier role here as the tormented Minor, but he gives the character some humanity by the end. The ensemble supporting cast includes Eddie Marsan as a sympathetic guard, Steve Coogan as Murray’s supportive colleague, and Jennifer Ehle, who is given little to do as Murray’s long-suffering wife Ada.

★★☆

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